Performing Resistance in Art: The Ghosts of Velivada
By Saumya Mani Tripathi
In HCU (Hyderabad Central University), the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula and subsequent crackdown on students caused a massive uproar on the question of caste and institutional structures and individuals through which it was facilitated. He left behind an extraordinarily jolting suicide note which has become a foundational dramatic text for many performances. His death invited very intense and quick responses from across the students of the country. Several students along with faculty members were arrested and jailed. This saw massive protests and agitations that quickly multiplied across the country. It influenced the nature of national politics by highlighting the prevalent discrimination in institutional spaces on the basis of identity. Later on, the commission probing Rohith Vemula’s death absolved Appa Rao, Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya of Rohith Vemula’s murder and stated that “they were merely discharging their duties.”
Meanwhile, Velivada, where Rohith Vemula and his friends slept and created a temporary shelter after being expelled from their Hostels (seen in the image above), became the site of struggle and remembrance. Velivada became the ground of mass gathering for political action. Performance and creative expressions of protest emphasized more and more the thematic of caste. Apart from the traditional visual design of a protest that includes flags, pamphlets, placards, ribbons, slogans, marches, nukkad natak, art installations, plays like Eklavya, solidarity songs by Gaddar and other prominent artists, were performed. This site became the confluence of thought and action, thereafter intervening in hegemonic structures. It was a unified space similar to the likes of Wisdom Tree at FTII, Freedom Square at JNU, a metaphor for a resistance site where protestors gathered to debate, dissent, make speeches, produce artworks, notify organized protest demonstrations and protest performances against all oppressive structures and injustices. These practices are not just informed by the pedagogical methods of the space (mostly university site) but are also informed by its social and regional location, its political economy, and trajectory of student politics in campuses. While the protests still continue, the status quo remains. HCU protests visualized the caste-bias throughout educational institutes and the suicide letter of Rohith Vemula became the haunting piece of text that probed many questions about politics, life, identity, love, etc.
In HCU, a year after Rohith Vemula’s death, which led to the nationwide Justice for Rohith Vemula movement, student artists from HCU installed a bust sculpture of him at the Velivada which is a Telugu word, literally translated as the Dalit Basti (Dalit Ghetto). This was the sitewhere he spent his days as an outcaste sleeping in the open, bearing cold winter blows and braving repeated attempts to humiliate them for their caste identity when he was suspended by the VC, AppaRao.
A student activist at HCU who wishes to be unnamed, in a personal interview articulates it as the following:
The social space in theory as enshrined in the constitution is a space of equal opportunity. However, in practice the dominant political hegemony remains in the hands of Brahmanical upper caste. The cultural space in universities and society alike was confined to the propagation and projection of Brahmanical order as the supreme tradition and the marginal had no space of expression. These politically and culturally charged confrontations of the dominant with the marginal always created a sense of alienation in the students from marginal identities. The dominant nationalist class that was in direct opposition of all these student movements and that deemed them anti-national was nothing, but dominant caste and communities assembled together to ensure their political dominance and caste hegemony.
The sculpture of Rohith Vemula installed in HCU became an act of iconoclasm reclaiming the space and gaze in history and public. The Greek style bust sculpture of Rohith, placed high on a pedestal, is designed to inspire a heroic image of him, establishing him as the next Dalit icon. This act of placing it in public reclaims the very space where he was made to end his life. It also challenges the idea of untouchability by mandating the public presence of this Dalit hero and makes the world see the future from his vantage point. The installation of this sculpture is to initiate the establishment of a new revolution. This way of seeing the world resonates the words that Rohith articulated in his suicide letter that continues to haunt the Brahmanical specter. His reflection and imagination of creation, pain and politics laid the foundation of imagining new art, new thought and new ways of resisting.
The issue of Dalit representation here goes beyond the assertion of identity and addresses the broader concern of alternative modes of articulation that challenges all kinds of hegemonic and oppressive structures in the society. The occupation of space by the sculpture of an untouchable was explained as an effort to unsettle and question and also resist the power of the social order propagated by caste Hindus. The sculpture was called Rohith Smarak Stupa (Rohith Memorial Stupa), the depiction of Buddhist symbol of stupa is deliberate to counter Caste Hindus and propose an alternative philosophy of emancipation for the Dalit through a neo-Buddhist symbolism. The metaphor of dome or stupa which historically served no practical purpose like pillars or arches, is based purely on philosophical reasons as a stupa represents the cycle of life and death, a complete circular structure enclosing a womb like space connected to the earth and sky. This site (velivada) thus functions as that womb that shelters and nurtures the struggles of collective resistance against identity-based oppressions. This further translates and escalatesa the memory of Rohith into a symbol, an idea, an icon representing core ideologies of this resistance movement. Only some days later, the sculpture of Ambedkar and Rohith Vemula in the university was vandalized and desecrated. This act once again implies that caste discrimination is deeply rooted in the social order of the university space. The visual medium is the terrain that becomes particularly relevant to resist oppression by dominant castes since it is the contestation of visibility and space. The aesthetics of the visual facilitate to distort and alter the symbolism associated with this hierarchy and to generate new meaning of resistance through everyday visual interaction.
The incident of the death of a fellow student, friend, and a Dalit evoked wounds of institutional caste biases within university spaces across the nation. The irreversible act of death could not be undone through any hunger strike. What exploded was the rage against Brahmanical oppression and cry for Justice for Rohith Vemula. Past blows of discrimination haunted the present and shook the individual and social body. Acknowledging their relatedness allows us to think of actions or performances that work simultaneously to mitigate the personal and collective effects and affects of trauma from the uncontrollable acting out to the therapeutic acting through to the political acting up.
These events created a rupture in the historical continuity of expressing dissent and generated new experiences and ways of articulation of emotions. This collective building of new language of protest leads to a creation of body memory which is stored not just in external sites but also in gestures, movements, sounds, smell, and dreams. Theatre and performance engage in the facilitation of these memories by active engagement with physicality. Staging trauma-driven performances (in this case, performances based on the death of a Dalit Scholar) in the public sphere highlight the necessary role of the creation of witnesses. These performances suddenly disrupt the apparent calm. They reveal unspeakable things that we do not possess but that possess us like spectators..
All of the above transmission of expression works through the interactive telling and listening associated with live performance. Bearing witness was implicit to live physical participation in protests. It is a doing, an act of transfer that takes place in the here and now of a listener, and the spectators’ presence becomes part of the act. This bodily memory has constant presence in the historical consciousness. It is communicated through various performative mediums, mediated through digital transmission, archived as event-based news, longed for as nostalgia (of what once was and the loss of what never will be after the event), transferred as post memory (as stories recounting these days by all those involved to the next generation) and acquires varied forms through expressions across the globe in different time and space .Yet, they have a paradoxical inheritance of both not being able to forget and remember fully. The past is ever-present.
In HCU, the space of Velivada is inevitably a theatre of memory of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and thus a memorial bust is installed to mark continuity between the memory and space. Slogans, speeches, and rhetoric constitute the oral history that helps in mobilizing and evoking a memory of a moment of history. Memory is constituted by the events/external experiences, something that leave an imprint on the body and psyche. It is contrasted by memory as constructed. Oral history trailblazed the importance of memory as an organizing concept. Since then historians have struggled to hold in the tension – an understanding of oral testimony that acknowledges its relation to the ‘happening’ and hence to the ‘constituted’ to historical experiences – which develops an understanding of memory “as an active production of meaning and interpretations, strategic in character and capable of influencing the present” and, therefore, memory as a text to be deciphered. The letter of Rohith Vemula is a site of this memory that challenges the master narrative of the state and the Brahmanical conscience and evokes the memory of the past in all future events. The play Eklavya Uvanch directed by Satish Mukhtalif, a student of JNU, challenges this hegemonic narrative and claims a new history. In his play, the Eklavya denies his thumb to the warrior guru Dronacharya. He sabotages caste system and rebels against the killing of his desires and spirit. He refuses to be “reduced to his immediate identity” and claims agency to write a new story of one’s destiny. Thus, re-writing mythic histories and challenging genealogical oppressions to create new cultural narratives enable construction of new social memories that empower to resist against the caste narratives embedded in popular culture.
In yet another incident, the students of Fine Arts Department of HCU in a collaborative Art performance covered the paintings of the Gallery with cloth and lay down on the floor covering their head inside a bag, pressing their ears with hands and closing their eyes at the arrival of Appa Rao, the VC of the university, whom they accuse of being the culprit behind Rohith’s Death. These student artists were active participants in the student movement at HCU and felt the responsibility to mark their dissent by denying the VC his visibility and performing his non-existence which is exactly what he didto the Dalit students including Rohith Vemula.
In an interview, one of the student participants Anupam Saikia said:
Today morning, we came to know that VC Appa Rao who is the main culprit of this incident would come to see our display which we did not agree to allow showing in front of him. So, Anupam, one of the final year students, covered her painting as a reaction or act towards this. We decided to sleep in the gallery space where paintings were displayed. I brought a brown tap and marked a space inside the painting studio and I slept inside the studio in a casual way by covering my head with pinkies bag, so that I will be not able to listen, smell, see, breathe and finally not be able to feel his presence. Anupam covered her ear with her hands so that she can’t listen to the power structure or any kind of intervention in our display.
This act not only stages performance of resistance to power hierarchy of caste ideology operating within the university and performing absence of the Oppressor, but is also a denial of power to the university authorities for censoring all spaces of dissent. It contains the logic of claiming identity and labor of the artist’s body which has been put to service the Brahmanical Lords by the artisan Dalit bodies. It also reveals how university spaces and student art practices can lead to new imagination of political resistance when it is being limited by the exclusionary and elitist capitalist market and mainstream Art Domain:
The visible presence of capital in the domain of art, with its attempts to secure the auratic quality of artworks, and the promotion of exclusive and elite institutional terrains for the consumption of art, has diminished the prospect of any direct relationship between art and a non-elite viewing public. This has also impacted activist art practice. The agenda of artists working with a self-conscious activist politics gets refracted through the lens of the market, putting into question the domain of art activism and limiting the options available to activist art practice. (Deeptha Achar and Shivaji K Pannikar, 2012: 25)
However, these interventions by the artist activists open new ways of looking at the aesthetics in context of the political. They bring forth new objects of study, new frameworks and lay new attempts to bring art closer to the viewing public. They also bring in the process and experience of art making as effective ways of creative resistance. Through bringing active interventions concerning representation and identity, they not only question the fault lines of academic and institutional disciplines but also bring academics closer to activism. A student movement thus becomes a playground to imagine new ways of art activism that challenges the hegemony of capitalist utilitarian market, institutional caste and gender biases and retains art as the function of social and political change. The act of chanting in unison (slogans, marches), as a human microphone, created a common sense of purpose, established relationships among neighbors, and intensified awareness of surrounding bodies. While social media engaged many thousands of people who had no pre-existing connection to social change organizations and activist networks, these virtual spaces, even more than physical sites of protest, became points of encounter where previously unrelated individuals aggregated to form popular assemblies. In addition to people forwarding information and “liking” the YouTube videos of these demonstrations posted on Facebook, these student protests, for example, were replicated online. Like minded individuals found each other on Twitter via hashtags and clicking on tags in other social media. This was the digital iteration of what the sound of these movements accomplishes in street protest. These digital means made the protest noticeable and traceable just like the cacophonic sounds that emerge in public space. Contemporary demonstrators find ways of connecting the live and the distributed, the in situ and the mediated by streaming events in real time, sharing documentation of past rallies, or (while in physical protests) carrying with them signs advertising social media sites where supporters may continue networking after the event is over. The social media even transcends the link of physical visibility as show of strength by introducing online petitions, signature campaigns, etc. The physical and the digital are intertwined and feed on each other.
The axiom that contemporary protests draw on theatre and performance to enhance its potency is repeated across explorations of activism at sites of resistance. The site of protest is a charged space where the intervention of aesthetics brings about a transformative power in the bodies of the spectators. These aesthetic practices give us a new insight into the politics and performance where politics is not separated from performance but is a new mode in political perception, generated by performance, as theorised by Hans Theis Leihman: “While performance can address, show, destabilize and interrupt the ‘performativity’ of nationalism, racism, sexism or ageism, it does so not through a direct efficacy or real doing, not primarily by producing political meaning, but through something Lehmann calls ‘afformance art.’ With this term, Lehmann locates the political in perception itself, in the art as a poetic interruption of the law and therefore of politics.”
While all cultural protests at HCU are not doing something afformative but there are elements of afformance that affects live bodies and changes perception, not just on site, but on the level of how one starts identifying politics in sites where one doesn’t think politics existed. It brings in new ways of representation and looking at that representation.
These examples from Justice for Rohith Vemula Movement not only provide us new ways of imagining political aesthetics but also generate new sites of synthesis of politics and performative. They push boundaries of ways of imagining and performing resistance where activism and art are in a symbiotic relationship. The use of technology and media to counter state sponsored communal capitalist violence provides an opportunity to explore accessible and affordable means of creating activist art. They also guide us to create new methods of resistance in this growing regime of censorship and fascism.
 Kancha Ilaiah in his article “Caste, the Artist and the Historian: What color is the Nationalist Cow” claims that though the Dalit Bahujan masses labored to produce artistic goods and commodities, their works were rarely historicized or given space in history as they were at the bottom of both class and caste structures. Their works have not been recorded in the history of nation building nor has been recognized in contemporary constructions of the history of Indian Art.
 Lehmann, Hans Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Routledge, 2006
“In Hyderabad, a play takes a look at Rohith Vemula’s words and tormented thoughts”: https://scroll.in/article/807754/in-hyderabad-a-play-takes-a-look-at-rohith-vemulas-words-and-tormented-thoughts
Oorali: An art tribute to Rohith Vemula: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlcbK5Irk3w
Gaddar performs in solidarity with HCU: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeEf2Rvof6g
Saumya Mani Tripathi is a PhD Scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. Her research areas are politics, performance, trauma, and memory in resistance movements. She has presented her works at Belgrade, Shanghai, Venice, Italy, and Ireland. She is currently working on cultures of resistance in Kashmir and is a filmmaker and thespian freelancing with various organizations in India and abroad.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.